Send in the Clowns: Pagliacci returns to Israel

Under director Inbal Pinto, the Israeli Opera brings the classic production back to life.

 A SCENE from 'Pagliacci'. (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
A SCENE from 'Pagliacci'.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)

The weeping, murdering clown Canio returns to the Israeli Opera on Friday, February 25 in a spectacular new production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci [Clowns]. It is one of the few operas that will live forever in the popular imagination thanks to its famous closing line “La commedia è finita,” and through its use of a real crime story for artistic inspiration.

Canio, in this production, is a middle-aged man married to Nedda, a young woman. The head of a traveling troupe of circus clowns, it is his job to “make sure everyone gets paid” and to hire local workers to help feed the animals and pitch the tents, said tenor Luis Chapa. When asked about his vision of the famous role Chapa told The Jerusalem Post, “Canio is tormented when the opera begins,” he suggests, “his relationship is falling apart before the curtain even goes up.”

Sadly, Nedda loves another man in the small band of actors, Silvio, whose name Canio doesn’t even know until the last moment of the opera. When Nedda rejects Tonio, yet another performer, he swears vengeance.

Tormented by his growing suspicion of his wife and his own fears, expressed in the aria “Vesti La Giubba [Put on the costume],” in which he asks himself “Bah! Are you not a man? You are a clown!” Canio eventually loses his ability to separate his stage persona from his real one and – during a performance – grabs a knife and kills both Nedda and, when he runs to aid her, Silvio.

When Luciano Pavarotti played the role alongside soprano Teresa Stratas in the 1994 production of the Metropolitan Opera the knife was placed in his hand by Tonio – making his revenge complete. When it was played by Roberto Alagna, Canio’s laughter haunts the viewer for days afterward, marking the emotional breaking point of a man who feels his professional role as a clown has murdered the true man he once was.

One of the greatest ironies of this opera is how the play within the play functions; the patrons who come to watch Canio do not realize they are watching a man losing his mind. They say “it seems so real he is making me cry” while others hiss “keep your voices down.” This is their reaction to hearing Canio cry out; his face is white, not with makeup but with shame an unfaithful wife heaped upon his head.

“The clown puts on a smiling mask and you never know what is underneath it,” director Inbal Pinto told the Post. “The clown has one goal. To make you happy. Yet underneath that façade, most clowns are sad.”

“This is what creates the anxiety people have of clowns,” she points out, “you never know what his real truth is, as you never really know that about anyone else really.”

“The connection between horror and laughter,” she says, “is very strong.”

In the opera, Canio takes his troupe to a village in Calabria to perform. While some productions depict a sharp contrast between the artists and the “salt-of-the-earth” audience which is meant to enjoy the show, this production is different.

IN HER reading, Pinto suggests that the border is blurrier than the original 19th-century patrons would have liked.

“Today, we do not know what is true and what is false, or what is even a fact, anymore,” she explained, “in that sense, we are all clowns and we all wear a mask of a sort.”

As she described it, the creative class arrives at the village hoping to spark change for a better world, yet, under the pressures of reality, this effort becomes tainted and cracks.

When Pavarotti finishes “No, Pagliaccio Non Son” [No, I am not a clown] he holds a blood-stained knife and the crowd applauds and cheers. During the Me Too era, it is a little difficult not to feel at least some unease. Canio, after all, proves that he is not an object of ridicule by murdering a woman. He might do it dressed as a character from the Commedia dell’arte tradition, which gives him a look which is very out-of-date to our eyes, yet the opera is based on real people. Especially in Israel, where violence against women is sadly soaring, how should we watch Pagliacci?

“The audience claps to the greatness of the artistic act,” Pinto says, “not because Canio murdered his wife.”

“The ovations are for the creators,” she repeats, “not to the murder of women.” She explains that, in her adaptation, a lot of thought had been given to Nedda (played by soprano Alla Vasilevitsky).  

“Why does she stay with him?” Pinto asks, “why doesn’t she leave?”

“Opera does not mean singing,” Chapa points out, “opera means work. It is a culmination of many different arts.”

“We are playing a show in a historical and cultural context,” he adds, “we are depicting human nature at its best and worst.”

“I cannot say if Canio will survive,” he remarked concerning our tense times, “but it is important to remember Leoncavallo based him on real people.”

Chapa points out that even back then, the murderer was judged and sent to prison, people did not cheer the abuser or throw flowers at his feet.

Unlike other operas ending with an aria that explains to the patrons what they spent their time watching, this opera was conceived in the verismo style, which depicts real life, with nary a single night queen, pirate, or Valkyrie in sight.

“The didactic lesson of this opera is left to the viewer to decide,” Chapa explained, “this is a very modern way of ending things.” It also means each Canio has to be unique, an artist cannot put on Enrico Caruso’s costume and wing it. The reality in 1908, when Caruso played the role and 16 years after the opera was first performed, is vastly different from that of our time.

Pagliacci at the Israeli Opera. Conductor Daniele Callegari will lead the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion in this production. In addition to those mentioned, Canio is played by Samuele Simoncini and Nedda by Elisa Cho.

Dates: Friday, February 25 at 1 p.m. Sunday, February 27 at 7:30 p.m. Monday, February 28 at 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 1 at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 3 at 8 p.m. Friday, March 4 at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 5 at 8 p.m. The opera is sung in Italian with English and Hebrew titles. Tickets range in price from NIS 195 to NIS 445. A 30-minute lecture about the opera will be given at no additional cost, one hour before each performance.  For more information: or call (03) 692-7777. The Israeli Opera is at 19 King Saul Boulevard, Tel Aviv. The audience is requested to present a Green Pass and wear a face mask to attend the performance.